Deep Colour by Diana Bridge (Otago University Press, 2023), 82pp, $25; Sea Skins by Sophia Wilson (Flying Island Books, 2023), 98pp, $10; This is a Story About Your Mother by Louise Wallace (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2023), 88pp, $25; Past Lives by Leah Dodd (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2023), 96pp, $25
Diana Bridge’s eighth collection, Deep Colour, opens with two epigraphs. One, from W.G. Sebald, speaks to ‘how it is essential to gaze far beneath the surface’. Fitting, then, that the titular poem begins ‘Somewhere down there in the aquarium’. From the first page, this collection immediately demonstrates with what masterful skill Bridge can plumb all sorts of depths. The titular poem draws from marine murk startling personal clarity: ‘One truth will soon displace / another […] A life gathers its themes, / some of which it may never weave’.
Bridge is a scholar as well as a poet, and her numerous scholarly affinities shine through in this collection. The second section, ‘Utamaro’s Objects’, is ekphrastic poetry inspired by paintings and woodblocks by the Japanese artist. The third section, ‘Fifteen Poems on Things’, comprises Bridge’s translations of the fifth-century Chinese poet Xie Tiao. Readers (like myself) who are not well-versed in these specialties can consult Bridge’s ‘Notes’ in the back—or simply let her precisely-weighted words wash over them.
In her ‘Notes’, Bridge observes: ‘I have always been drawn to work that is compressed and allusive, and to poems that lean on images’. Bridge’s poetry is simultaneously concerned with objects, artworks, those ‘things’ that are tangible—and the internal, the cerebral, the life of the mind. The interplay and tension between these aspects is vividly rendered in the poem ‘She spends time with objects’. Bridge describes the way her infant daughter plays with a heap of shells, stones and other small treasures:
Attentive, free of bias, she lessens the space
between items. I do the opposite.
I look into the distance as I attach to objects
meanings steeped in feeling. My choices
harbour differences and antique schisms.
Like me, they war within.
It was in the Chinese lyric tradition, Bridge notes, that she recognised her favoured form—poems that are structured ‘with a “scene statement” placed in the “head” and/or “belly” of the poem, and a personal response located in the tail’. In Bridge’s work, these responses seldom present anything as simple or resolved. Instead, this poetry offers us the same kind of delicate beauty that Bridge herself found captured in Utamaro’s woodcuts:
One page showed the fleeting
season and its rituals of gathering, the transience
and the harvesting to be savoured side by side.
Sea Skins by Sophia Wilson is published as part of Flying Island Books’ Pocket Poets series. The compact format of this book is deceptive, however. A great deal is packed within five sections inside the small volume, and Wilson’s poetry is unflinching and utterly uncompromising in what it has to say.
Wilson’s work is honest about just how much of human life is struggle—familial, physical, financial, existential. These poems communicate a deeply felt sense of precarity. In ‘The Evening Star’, ‘Important people circle, silent as head-stones / waiting for payments I can never make / […] We stutter up and down mortgaged stairs’. Relief is offered most accessibly by ‘Sleep’, which ‘offers mouth-to-mouth oblivion / for a while we can pretend / we don’t reside here anymore / between impossible grindstones / and the birth-death quandary’.
Predominant among Wilson’s fears is the looming threat of ecological collapse and the human capacity for greed and destruction that stands behind it. This is contrasted against the memory of her own ‘Gen X’ youth, in which even blazing Australian drought might not have felt like an existential threat: ‘We were leavened against the odds / confident rains would come / and seasons, crisply demarcated—/ as though the future was an open harvest’.
Wilson’s fears are compounded by her status as a mother. ‘I walk with you bound to my breastbone’ she writes ‘shoulder the terrifying responsibility / of nurturing you in an era of mass extinctions’. As her children age into understanding, the ‘Unthinkable’ of climate catastrophe becomes a subject discussed between parent and child—an unanswerable question.
rare remnant erasure, native wipe-out
the take-down of trees, animals, people
my children, in tears, ask why? how?
i tell them, i don’t know
But this collection is not unremittingly bleak. For all the righteous anger and fear that Wilson holds for her children’s futures, she also finds beauty in their sheer existence and the ideals they choose to embody. In ‘Filles de Lune’ she writes of her daughters, seeing in them something at once ordinary and yet almost divine:
The names their father gave them
fit for simple peasant girls
but stored like silks
beneath T-shirts, jeans and gumboots
they are wearing identical T-shirts
in cursive white wraps their chests
like wings, bandages
or a shield
The things that offer comfort in life are just as plainly presented as the horrors. And they are made to feel just as tangible:
We plant trees, bake apple pie
rest our hands on the heads of our sheep
Wilson presents with vivid, ferocious clarity the grief, the joys, the impossible paradoxes of life in the Anthropocene. Sea Skins feels like a handbook for a certain kind of human tenacity and honesty—just the kind of thing we might all need to keep at the ready in our pockets.
The world is fraught
The world is bright with splendour
What we have lost is unbearable
then one morning
radiance sweeps in
This is a story about your mother is Louise Wallace’s fourth collection. Although the first line declares, ‘I am breaking up with difficult poetry’, this is not exactly an easy read. How could it possibly be when its subject is something as complex, as transformative, as loaded with all kinds of expectations as motherhood?
The collection opens—before its first titled section—with two poems that offer a kind of exposition, context into which the expected child will come to be. This is not all rosy. There is frustration regarding the housing market, the deep grief of watching a parent’s health decline, and a frank acknowledgement that ‘life is terrible sometimes’.
Then we move into ‘LIKE A HEART’. This section comprises the vast majority of the book. With ‘aim for a healthy life’, Wallace begins as she means to go on, in a relentless, run-on barrage: ‘the first trying where it all begins trying all that trying’. Several poems in this collection take the form of lists, such as ‘women’s troubles’: ‘keepsakes & risky diaries, minor infections, siblings, roughage, fluids & cups’. Lines of thought often arrive in staccato bursts, phrases chopped by crosses or dashes.
Wallace creates a sense of ironic distance—not from the actuality of motherhood but from the impossible and contradictory expectations that are placed around it. All the unsolicited advice, all the pat assumptions. One poem is titled ‘lucky x radiant x glow’. Sometimes Wallace expresses these tensions comically—‘it’s hard to be completely yourself while being beaten around the ears with leafy greens’. And other times in a darker tone—‘mummy x they’ll call you which is lucky x when x you have no other name’.
Nothing in this collection feels exaggerated. Any sense of absurdism feels entirely earned, if somewhat heightened. If the general sense of overwhelm is recognisable to me (who has only ever read about and thought about motherhood), I can only imagine how resonant this collection might feel for those who share the lived experience.
There is a chronological thrust to the collection. The poems move through months of gestation until ‘kickoff’. I don’t know if there can be such a thing as spoilers for a poetry collection … but if so, please forgive me for this one. The last section, ‘VESSEL’, takes a marked change in tone. The hectic tempo suddenly slows; the poems take up less space on the page; the clamour of the world’s demands recedes. This is not to say that things are suddenly simple in these poems that deal with labour and the aftermath of birth. Of course, there is exhaustion and self-doubt. The new mother imagines her son in a Moses basket, ‘ready to be nudged from a riverbank, to bob along in search of a better mother’.
But imperfection is allowed for, in self and in others. Wallace’s father did not finish building his own boat, but perhaps her son might—and she can pass on lessons from her father’s nautical vocabulary. ‘In sailing, / you must learn how to demast: / how to cut away / the mess. / […] I am ready to sail with you.’
Past Lives is Leah Dodd’s debut collection, and it had me won over before I had even finished skimming the page of contents. This is poetry with wry humour, with a distinct sense of place and time—and, specifically, of generation.
Take one of the earlier poems, which begins:
on rosewood floors
the sisters unspool around
candles and beaded cushions
three-quarter cargos rolled high
they spread sugary wax like butter
over the peaks of their shins
Even if the poem’s title had not located this scene for me (‘Mt Eden 2005’), at the mention of those cargo pants, I would immediately have had an idea. Whatever your opinion of teen fashion at the dawn of the millennium, it has seldom been made to sound so beautiful, so capital-R Romantic. These sisters ‘share stories in blushed voices / as the candles burn down / each face an open violet’.
Dodd takes what is ordinary and transforms it—romanticising some parts of life while mining others for absurdism. I cackled my way delightedly through her call for ‘revolution’: ‘cars are bad and we should replace them with bats / just fill the streets with thousands of bats’.
The tone here and the broadly ranging cultural references will be recognisable to readers of a certain generation—particularly those who might categorise themselves as ‘extremely online’. Phrases made ubiquitous by memes and movies are toyed with: ‘get online, loser / we’re marinating / in our collective trauma!’ These references do not simply speak to a generation’s tastes in media but also to more existential matters. One only-half-joking poem is titled: ‘the only way out of my student loan is to marry ex-FRIENDS star Matthew Perry’. There is no distinction between so-called high culture and low culture in Dodd’s work, which feels both honest and refreshing. The virtual pet game Neopets, Shakespeare, FRIENDS, and the novel Finnegans Wake are all (and equally) background colour that offers comfort and/or escapism from the realities of life.
Dodd makes that desire for escape feel visceral, and yet—crucially—does so without implying that the world is actually bleak and joyless. These poems give clear voice to the delight of parenthood—and in one, the poem’s speaker longs to tell a stranger, ‘this is a lake of magma / and I am sinking further every day’. Multiple poems touch on the lockdowns, evoking that first ‘legally lonely winter’ with such relatable titles as ‘the things I would do for a Pizza Hut Classic Cheese right now’. ‘Tips for lockdown wellness’ brilliantly plays on the common comparison between our modern stresses and the threat that tigers posed to our prehistoric ancestors: ‘let your body know there is no tiger / hold yourself close say I am safe / even if the tiger has let himself in / and is drinking all the milk in the fridge’.
In Past Lives, Dodd paints a genuinely beautiful warts-and-all portrait of modern life. The poignancy with which she can write is perfectly crystallised in ‘Mt Eden 2005’:
the sisters squeeze each other’s
back pimples and sing Leonard Cohen
in four-part harmony to their mother
and feed her toast with tomato and salt
since an article online said it might
help with the tumour
It feels as though there are already several lives’ worth of perspicacity in Dodd’s first collection. I very much look forward to whatever we see from her next.
GENEVIEVE SCANLAN lives in Ōtepoti Dunedin. She has reviewed poetry for Landfall, HAMSTER magazine and The Rochford Street Review, and has had her own work published in The Otago Daily Times, The Rise Up Review and Poetry New Zealand.